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Doug Saunders

The worldwide revolution of angry apartment owners Add to ...

In China, the second Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protest was smothered at birth, the planned "jasmine revolution" demonstrations quashed discreetly by police before they could even reach the pavement. But another sort of movement, possibly even more potent and world-changing, is emerging not from the streets but from the thousands of high-rise apartment towers that loom above them.

In a hundred cities across China, movements have sprung up among first-time apartment owners to expel the management companies and replace them with homeowners' committees - not the old-style committees that were loyal branches of the Communist Party but new ones that push both developers and the local government for more accountability. If democracy emerges in China, it's more likely to begin at the municipal, or even neighbourhood, level.

Who are these new activists? They're almost all people whose parents lived on dirt floors but who've struggled to reach the very bottom of the property market. In the past few years, millions of Chinese have moved out of state-owned dormitories, peasant shacks and urban shantytowns into privately owned high-rises that encircle every city. The largest cities have introduced property taxes, and these new, still-poor, property owners are demanding something in return for their money.

Are these people middle class? Not in the old sense. A decade ago, anyone in China considered "middle class" - that is, whose family earned more than $10 a day (putting them in the top 5 per cent of earners) - inevitably worked for the government or in the top ranks of a state-owned company. Their parents were probably members of the same class. They supported the Beijing regime, and depended on it; their lives were defined by stability.

This new class, a lower middle class whose parents were workers or peasants, has no such loyalties. Its members bled and scraped to get their tiny cement-block apartments, with little help from any government: Their lives are defined by change.

This is the same class that occupied Tahrir Square and pushed out Hosni Mubarak, the first generation to have the Internet and the first to think about buying a home, however small. They are the products of one of the world's most rapid rural-to-urban transitions in Cairo and Alexandria, and they are desperate for a place in the economy.

Egypt's established middle class worked for state-controlled or military-owned companies, if not for the state itself, and were generally loyal to the regime. If this class rebelled - as many did when the nationalized economy opened up to competition in the 1990s - it was often by backing al-Qaeda. Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian ringleader of 9/11, was a quintessential child of this class.

Egypt's new bottom-rung middle class, much like its Chinese counterpart, had nothing to gain from supporting either the regime or its hard-core Islamist opponents. What they want are open business conditions, fair and honourable contracts, and a route to employment unclotted by corruption.

Washington economist Nancy Birdsall, head of the Centre for Global Development, calls this group the "catalyst class" - the strivers who need government to work for them. "They're the people who want rules of the game, they want a level playing field," she told me this week. "They want contracts honoured; they might want collective bargaining rights. They create, when there's enough of them, democracy from the ground up. With enough of these people with common interest, that's when you get better economic policies, more open political systems."

We should know these people. They were the ones who brought democracy to North America. "In the United States, the middle class came from 60 acres and a plow," Dr. Birdsall says. "These were not well-educated people. They formed that class, and they created local democracy."

Is the catalyst class big enough in Egypt or China to create similar change? We don't know yet. In Egypt, it was big enough to expel a dictator. And it's changing the world: Turkey, Brazil and much of Latin America are now dominated by this class, whose demands for transparency and competition are creating democratic ability, economic growth and shrinking inequality. It's a worldwide revolution of angry apartment owners.

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